Though the technology promises seemingly innumerable ways to positively impact human life, gene editing is truly a double-edged sword, with nearly as many potentially negative consequences as benefits. Now, an advisory council to President Obama is urging the government to start creating countermeasures for the negative use of emerging biotechnologies.
This month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) wrote a letter to President Obama recommending measures to address this potential for harm using new technologies. It advocates funding new research into antibiotic and antiviral drugs to combat resistance and having a $250 million fund for the stockpiling of vaccines.
Even more than addressing current threats, PCAST wants the government to look at the future. They’ve called for the establishment of a new government body that creates plans for national biodefense and urged setting aside a $2 billion standby fund for addressing emerging bioterror threats.
We are currently in nothing short of a golden age of gene editing. The advent of CRISPR and better genetic sequencing has allowed scientists unprecedented control over an organism’s genome. We are now actively engineering cures for HIV, blood-borne diseases, and even cancer using CRISPR and other gene editing techniques.
Unfortunately, this same technology that is engineering future cures can also be used to beef-up current diseases and plagues. We are already facing a near-crisis with superbugs and antibiotic-resistant viruses, so just imagine if an enemy engineered one with specific resistance to last-line drugs we use for only the worst cases.
Rather than augmenting a current biological threat, why not make one from scratch? A bioterrorist could take a regular virus’s DNA and programming it to disrupt or repress all sorts of cell functions. They could even create pests that are resistant to chemicals and then use those to attack America’s crops.
The general rule is that as technology and society develop exponentially, laws and regulations struggle to keep up. We’re already seeing this in drones, driverless cars, and high-speed rail, so it’s good that as we’re on the cusp of a genetic revolution, people in the scientific community are already thinking about the potential negative consequences of unbridled research into the field. Now, we just have to see how the government chooses to react to these warnings.